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Manchester’s renaissance from the rubble

A police officer amid the damage caused by the IRA bomb in Manchester city centre - Credit: Sygma via Getty Images

Twenty five years after a massive IRA bomb destroyed the centre of Manchester, LUKE BAINBRIDGE reports on how the city was reborn from the rubble

Dennis Walker was the first black player to play for Manchester United, back in 1963. After retiring from football, the fluent Farsi and Arabic speaker became operations manager at the Arndale shopping centre in the city. He was on duty the morning of June 15, 1996, when a telephone call came through claiming a bomb had been planted in the complex.

Anti-terror police were on high alert in London over fears the IRA could target that day’s Trooping the Colour ceremony, but no attack was expected in Manchester.

Thousands of football fans, me among them, were already in the city centre, or making their way there, to watch that afternoon’s Euro 96 match between England and Scotland, and the Arndale was busy with shoppers looking for presents for Father’s Day. 

Hoax calls were not unusual, but thankfully this warning was taken seriously. Shortly after the Arndale had been evacuated, a 3,300lb IRA bomb was detonated, hurling Dennis across the road and into the window of Debenhams.

It was the biggest bomb the IRA ever exploded on the British mainland. Miraculously, no-one was killed, but hundreds were injured and no building within half a mile was unscathed, triggering an inimitable Mancunian reaction to adversity, and what would become internationally recognised as a masterclass in city regeneration. 

There’s myth in media circles that the IRA bomb started the regeneration of Manchester, but the truth is the city’s rebirth had started a decade earlier. The bomb damage did necessitate a complete rebuilding of the key retail area of the city centre, providing a unique opportunity to rethink that part of the city which proved a huge success. But Manchester itself was already a city in transition.

It may have suffered in the 1970s, like all British post-industrial cities, but by the late 1980s and early 1990s Manchester was rediscovering its zeal. Coming of age at the time, I witnessed the city reinvent itself around me, drawing inspiration and confidence from its art and artists.

Culture replaced cotton as the city’s greatest export, and the foundations for both its excess of civic pride and its international reputation. Its buoyant music scene and the domination of Manchester United put it back on the global map and enthused the population with an excess of civic pride.

Tony Wilson, co-founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub, once explained to me, at length (the only way he knew how), that in his eyes: “The idea of the city as an attractive vibrant place to be begins with rock‘n’roll. Why is that even more true in cities like Manchester? When it comes to popular culture, you’re talking world, global level.” 

How could you be living in a dump, Wilson argued, if when it came to rock’n’roll, something that meant more to you than anything, your city was more important than Tokyo, Berlin and Paris. You couldn’t. The civic pride was infectious. The city began to think big again, staying true to the forward-thinking and liberal traditions that made JB Priestley once remark: “What Manchester thinks today, the rest of England thinks tomorrow.”

The city had unsuccessfully bid for the 2000 Olympics, but that journey ended with hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2002, the huge success of which fed into the London Olympics a decade later. “Manchester reinvented itself,” Oscar-winning film director Danny Boyle, the Mancunian who directed the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic games, explained in the film The Class of 92, “It didn’t wait for a leader to do that for it. In fact, it took the lack of interest that was clearly shown to it by Margaret Thatcher’s premiership as the signal to do things for itself. There are some great northern cities that actually aren’t beholden to anyone. And no matter how bad it gets they will always regenerate themselves.”

On the afternoon of the bomb, I’d arranged to meet friends to watch England v Scotland in the White Lion pub in the city centre. I rang to see if the pub was still open. “We’re still here love, we’re just outside the police cordon, if you can get to us.”

The day after the bomb, the Russia v Germany Euro 96 game at Old Trafford went ahead as planned, reflecting the city’s defiance in the face of adversity. By the time Michael Heseltine and other senior government ministers arrived in the city on Monday, two days after the bomb, Manchester’s leaders were way ahead of them.

Within the Town Hall, a task force had been established, led by Howard Bernstein of Manchester City Council. “I don’t know what it was like in the Blitz, but it could not have been much bloody worse,” Bernstein said later, “The first week was pretty devastating. We wondered how we were going to recover. Then that Manchester ‘can-do’ thing comes back and you think ‘stuff it. We have to do this and will do it in a way only Manchester can’.”

Never a city to stand still, council chiefs started to draft a tentative plan. “Fairly quickly we decided we were not just going to rebuild in the same way,” reminisced Sir Richard Leese, leader of the council, later. “This was an opportunity to do something about past mistakes in the 1960s and 1970s, and one we were going to take. We knew Heseltine liked big schemes so we set him up with a scheme he couldn’t resist.”

The brief that was drawn up for the re-design of the retail core of the city, which had suffered most damage, was clear: ‘We want to see a development and investment framework established which creates an architecturally distinctive core, which is of urban character, and is responsive to the access needs of the young and old, people with disabilities, and which is physically and socially integrated with the rest of the City. Our objective is to maximise private investment and stimulate economic activity. The framework must promote the widest possible range of opportunities for people to live, shop, work and relax safely; and where activity can take place at most times of day and night.’

The winner of the re-design competition was the EDAW consortium, including Manchester practice Ian Simpson Architects (now SimpsonHaugh) the practice and the architect who became synonymous with the remodelling of Manchester. Their winning plan included Exchange Square (a new square on the site of the bomb), redevelopment of the old Corn Exchange and a huge new Marks & Spencer and Selfridge’s, linked to St Ann’s Square by a new pedestrianised street.

There was also to be a new transport interchange, and emphasis on overall enhanced connectivity of the city was key to the winning bid. “Manchester was divided between the wealthy south and poor north and Market Street was the dividing line,” Simpson said in a rare interview. “I wanted to break that barrier.” 

In the late 1990s, I moved into Cromford Court modernist housing development on top of the Arndale. Living on one side of the bomb site, and working from the Guardian offices on Deansgate, the other side of the devastation, I witnessed the regeneration first-hand. Our flats were eventually compulsory purchased, to make way for the regeneration of the Arndale.

The Manchester bomb may not have started the rebirth of Manchester, but it did accelerate it apace, particularly in the forced regeneration of the commercial core. Three years after the bomb, in 1999, a huge expanded Marks & Spencer was re-opened by three-year-old Sam Hughes, who had been photographed as a seven-month-old baby being carried bleeding from the wreckage after being cut by flying glass.

M&S was joined by new northern outposts for Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. Of the four Selfridges in the UK, two were now in Manchester. Birmingham and London had to make do with one each. Not the sort of thing Mancunians were likely to crow about, but another sign of the commercial resurgence of the city.

In 2003, the architectural community recognised this groundbreaking and refreshing vision, when Manchester City Council (and Bernstein), won the Royal Institute of British Architects Client of the Year, the only time a local government authority has won the award. The judges said, “Manchester City Council has been an exemplary client and enabler of good architecture, both directly and indirectly, for the last decade. As a result of what its chief executive Howard Bernstein has described as ‘positive discrimination in favour of quality outcomes’, the city has transformed its architectural and public realm identity through a series of projects including the Commonwealth Stadium (now home to Manchester City), the expanded City Art Gallery, the upgraded Piccadilly Station, and public realm programmes including Piccadilly Gardens and the Castlefield area. The response to the bombing of the city centre has been to embrace good-quality design by both local and national architects, a policy that is now extending to the renewal of post-industrial regeneration sites in east Manchester. The city council has provided an inspiring example of civic leadership that echoes the spirit in which the city fathers created the great architectural landmarks from the 19th century, and is a more than worthy winner of this year’s award.”

The bomb wasn’t a complete reset or reboot button for Manchester. It wasn’t a return to Go. The city wasn’t redrawn from a blank canvas in 1996. It was a pause, a reflection on where the city was, how it had got here, where it wanted to go, and how long along that path it had travelled. 

The remarkable transformation of that sector of the city centre was just part of a wider story of Manchester’s regeneration but the speed and success of the transformation led to the city being a globally admired example of urban planning. Manchester is now a regular destination for urban designers and city officials from across the globe, keen to see what has been achieved with their own eyes.

The regeneration was spread across the city, far from the site of the 1996 bomb. Further out from the city centre, Salford Quays is now home to the BBC, Media City and the Lowry Centre, with the Imperial War Museum North, Old Trafford and the Manchester United Class of 92’s Hotel Football opposite.

Ancoats is unrecognisable from the mid 1990s, when intrepid clubbers would make their way through derelict streets to Sankeys Soap, now home to craft beer bars, restaurants and loft apartments. The Commonwealth Games sites, which had been a wasteland since the closure of Bradford Colliery in 1968, has been transformed by the games and subsequent arrival of Manchester City and their local regeneration funded by Sheik Mansour.

Not everyone has benefited. There is still a divide between the wealthy and poor, and the expansion of the city centre led by what can sometimes feel like a beige tsunami of identikit buy-to-let apartments by less sensitive developers has displaced existing communities in areas like Angel Meadows and Collyhurst. Much-needed organisations like the long-standing homeless organisation Lifeshare have been displaced, needing a new home themselves.

Twenty-five years later, the city centre of Manchester is unrecognisable, but it’s a myth to say this is down to the bomb, which was only one staging post on the journey the world’s first industrial city has made to be a groundbreaking post-industrial one. 

SimpsonHaugh, responsible more than anyone for the reshaping of the city centre streets and the dramatic rising skyline, now have more than 100 staff across their offices in Manchester and London, and are in high demand, with their vast portfolio of high-profile projects includes the long-term development of Battersea Power Station and One Blackfriars. But the beating heart of the practice remains in Manchester.

Simpson himself lives in the penthouse at the top of Beetham Tower, in a triplex apartment complete with a grove of olive trees, imported from Tuscany, and an unrivalled 360 degree of the reborn city centre. “I feel I’m an ambassador for Manchester,” Simpson says. “I’m a Manchester practice with a regional office in the capital.”

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